MANISHA PAREKH, Black Series, 1999, black ink pigment on Kent paper and sepia mounts, 30 units, 25.5 × 35.5 cm each. Collection of the Suresh and Saroj Bhayana Family. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.

“Fluid Structures – Gender and Abstraction”

Vadehra Art Gallery

Curated by Vadehra Art Gallery’s Vidya Shivadas, with advisory input from Sonal Khullar, “Fluid Structures” explored the contribution made by six women artists to the tradition of abstraction in India, which dates back to the 1940s with the paintings of the Progressives. The exhibition spanned two generations by showing three artists who began their experiments with abstraction in the 1960s and three who have been working since the 1990s.

Nasreen Mohamedi, Zarina Hashmi and Arpita Singh, were the exhibition’s three elder stateswomen. In her urban landscapes made with ink and pencil, Mohamedi creates perspective through shaded lines that extend toward an unseen horizon. Her drawings shown here, all untitled and undated, illustrate Mohamedi’s range of inspiration, from the geometry of Mughal architecture to street markings and shadows.

Working in a looser style, Hashmi, who has studied in Paris, Tokyo and Bangkok and now lives in New York, tracks memories of her journeys using painted lines, embossed forms and threads sewn onto paper. In Untitled (1975), lines connect different forms and surfaces, creating links between places, people and events.

The works displayed from Singh detoured from her better-known, colorful narrative paintings that address gender politics. Her experimentation with abstraction began with woodcuts, which may be the basis for her jagged-line motif seen in a trio of untitled watercolors from 1980 and 1981. The variety of her constructions, from the austerity of her watercolors to the dense planes of Drawing – IV (1982), highlights the trials Singh embarked upon in an attempt to forge an independent style.  

Of the second generation of artists, Gargi Raina stands apart for not being a pure abstractionist. Her screen installation, A Letter to Nasreen (2007) is made with wood, rice paper, gouache and dry pastel, divided into six equal segments painted on a flat surface, each given depth of field with lines. Thus the segments become compartments, five of which contain red-stained balls of string and one is left empty. The screen is a nod to Mohamedi’s use of linear spatial division; the red signifies blood and Mohamedi’s long illness and untimely death in 1990.

Sheila Makhijani and Manisha Parekh honor their elders in their primary use of abstractionism. Makhijani paints linear free-forms with no visible inspirations, offering only suggestive titles such as I Wish I Knew (2008), What Are You Both Talking About (2008) and As If (2004) to help viewers discern the meaning of her amorphous shapes. Parekh’s wall-mounted installation, A Secret Within (2008), consists of seven jute rope and acrylic sculptures situated alongside each other without a border or frame. This engagement with placement and the interplay between object and space illustrates abstractionist tenets. 

The exhibition highlighted the continued popularity of abstraction among Indian artists. It won’t be too long before a line is drawn between the two generations represented here and a third.